What’s to Forgive?

Photo by Karl Bloss­feldt: Monks­hood, from Urfor­men der Kunst (1928)

In going back over one’s past one remembers all too much foolishness. Yet how can I forgive anyone else if I don’t forgive myself? And how can I believe that now, as I have become and matured, I am no longer a fool? If “judge not that you be not judged” means anything, it means that we must look at human affairs, including our own, as we look at nature:

In the scene of spring there is nothing inferior,
nothing superior;
Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.

Our deeds, our feelings, our thoughts, and our sensations just happen of themselves, as the rain falls and the water flows along the valley. I am neither a passive and helpless witness to whom they happen, nor an active doer and thinker who causes and controls them. “I” is simply the idea of myself, a thought among thoughts. Taken seriously it gives the illusion of being something apart from nature, a subject reviewing objects. But if the subject is an illusion, the objects are no longer mere objects. Inside the skull and the skin as well as outside, there is simply the stream flowing along of itself. The bones flow too, and their inner texture has the same patterns as moving liquid. In nature there are neither masters nor slaves.

Alan Watts
In My Own Way (1972)

Photo by Karl Bloss­feldt: Monks­hood, from Urfor­men der Kunst [Art Forms in Nature] (1928)

Now

Lion

As the Zen master Dōgen put it, the spring does not become the summer: there is spring, and then there is summer. Likewise firewood does not become ashes, nor the living body the corpse. This is how reality appears to one who knows that only the present is real.

Alan Watts
In My Own Way (1972)

Photo by André Carrara

Beyond Theology, Beyond Atheism, Beyond Nihilism

Rainy Season in the Tropics

To construct a God in the human image is objectionable only to the extent that we have a poor image of ourselves, for example, as egos in bags of skin. But as we begin to visualize man as the behavior of a unified field – immensely complex and comprising the whole universe – there is less and less reason against conceiving God in that image. To go deeper and deeper into oneself is also to go farther and farther out into the universe, until, as the physicist well knows, we reach the domain where three-dimensional, sensory images are no longer valid. (These are, of course, graven images.) For the three-dimensional world seems to appear in a matrix as different from it in form as tones from the flute, as ideas from brain structure, or as a broadcast concert from the electronic apparatus of the radio. Nothing in the information conveyed in the ordinary run of television programs tells us anything about the mechanisms of television. These are almost deliberately concealed. We do not televise through camera 2 a picture of camera 1 televising the show! For what, in the meantime, would be happening to the picture on camera 1?

Thus the idea of an invisible and intangible Ground underlying and producing everything that we sense directly is a situation of just the same kind as that the structure of one’s own retina and optic nerves is not in the contents of vision. It is really no problem for an intelligent human being of the twentieth century to conceive that all his experience of the world, together with the world itself, subsists in some kind of unifying and intelligent continuum. (Think of the vast variety of sound – voice, string, woodwind, drum, brass – reproducible on the diaphragm of a loud-speaker.)

The real theological problem for today is that it is, first of all, utterly implausible to think of this Ground as having the monarchial and paternal character of the Biblical Lord God. But, secondly, there is the much more serious difficulty of freeing oneself from the insidious plausibility of the mythology of nineteenth-century scientism. from the notion that the universe is gyrating stupidity in which the mind of man is nothing but a chemical fantasy doomed to frustration. It is insufficiently recognized that this is a vision of the world inspired by the revolt against the Lord God of those who had formerly held the role of his slaves. This reductionist, nothing-but-ist view of the universe with its muscular claims to realism and facing-factuality is at root a proletarian and servile resentment against quality, genius, imagination, poetry, fantasy, inventiveness and gaiety.[1] Within twenty or thirty years it will seem as superstitious as flat-earthism.

Actually, the sense of being an intelligent and sensitive accident in a doltish universe is an attitude that could arise only in the ruins of theism. For if one begins by looking at the world, not as the form of God, but as some non-divine object, some mechanism made by God, what happens when God dies? The world is felt as mechanism without mechanic. When God is dead, man, who was always defined as a creature other than God, begins to feel himself as other than reality – a sentimental irregularity in a dog-eat-dog system that might have been contrived by the Devil, if Devil there were. Men so at odds with their environment must either bulldoze it into obedience or destroy it. The two choices come to the same thing.

But a superior religion goes beyond theology. It turns toward the center; it investigates and feels out the inmost depths of man himself, since it is here that we are in most intimate contact, or rather, in identity with existence itself. Dependence on the theological ideas and symbols is replaced by direct, non-conceptual touch with a level of being which is simultaneously one’s own and the being of all others. For at the point where I am most myself I am most beyond myself. At root I am one with all the other branches. Yet this level of being is not something to be grasped and categorized, to be inspected, analyzed or made an object of knowledge – not because it is taboo or sacrosanct, but because it is the point from which one radiates, the light not before but within the eyes.

If this is that theological bugbear, pantheism, what of it? One is not equating omniscience with conscious attention or the Godhead with the ego. It is simply an assertion of the perennial intuition of the mystics everywhere in the world that man has not dropped into being from nowhere, but that his feeling of “I” is a dim and distorted sensation of That which eternally IS. In the wake of so many centuries of theological monarchism, plus the recent and persuasive nihilism of certain scientists, it may take some courage to accept so bold an assurance. This is not, however, the mere acceptance of a new belief. It could be that, if that is all one can manage. But I have been trying to suggest all along that this is what one must come to by following the Christian way intently and consistently until one realizes the full absurdity of its (and one’s own) basic assumptions about personal identity and responsibility.

Nevertheless, I have already suggested that the way in which we interpret mystical experience must be plausible. That is to say, it must fit in with and/or throw light upon the best available knowledge about life and the universe. As we enter the latter half of the twentieth century, there seem to me to be three main trends in scientific thought which are at once three ways of expressing the same idea, and three ways of describing the identity of things or events as the mystic feels them.

The first is the growing recognition that causally connected or related events are not separate events, but aspects of a single event. To describe a causal relation is a fumbling way of recognizing that cause A and cause B go together in the same way as the head and the tail of a cat. This implies that earlier events may often depend in some way upon later events, somewhat as an electric impulse will not depart from the positive pole until the negative pole is established or connected, or as the meaning of a word in a sentence is determined by words that follow. Compare, “That is the bark of a tree,” with, “That is the bark of a dog.” The sentence as a whole is the event which determines the function and meaning of the “separate” words. Perhaps the best illustration of this way of understanding causality is that the even rainbow does not occur without the simultaneous presence of sun, atmospheric moisture, and an observer – all in a certain angular configuration. If any one of the three is absent, there is no rainbow. This may be difficult to understand in the case of the absence of an observer unless one remembers that every observer sees the rainbow in a different place. Where, then, is the rainbow? A little consideration will show that something of the same kind must be true of all experiences, not only of flimsy and transparent luminescences, but also of such apparently solid things as mountains.

The second is the tendency to think of the behavior of things and objects as the behavior of fields – spatial, gravitational, magnetic or social. The reason is that careful and detailed description of the behavior or movement of a body must also involve description of the behavior of its environment or surrounding space. Where, then, does the behavior start? Inside the body, or outside it in the surrounding space? The answer is in both and neither, because it is best to abandon the body and the space for a new descriptive unit, the body-space, the organism-environment, the figure-ground. It is important to distinguish this way of looking at things from old-fashioned environmental determinism, which describes the organism as moved by the environment rather than moving with it.

The third, long familiar to biologists, is what Ludwig von Bertelannfy has called Systems Theory. This is approximately that the structure and behavior of any system is only partially accounted for by analysis and description of the smaller units that allegedly “compose” it. For what any of these units is and does depends upon its place in and its relation to the system as a whole. Thus blood in a test tube is not the same thing as blood flowing in veins. For an organism disposes itself in and as various parts; it is not composed of them as one puts together tubes, wires, dials and condensers to make a radio.

These are, then, three ways of approaching the world as a unitary and relational system which are highly useful in the sciences but strangely unfamiliar to common sense. For the latter derives from political, constructionist and mechanical models of nature which, in turn, strongly influence our sensation of the person as an enclosed unit of life excluded from the world outside. But these unitary, relational, and “fieldish” ways of thinking in the sciences give immense plausibility to non-dualist or pantheist (to be frightfully exact, “panentheist”) types of metaphysic, and to theories of the self more-or-less akin to the “multisolipsism” of the Hindu atman-is-Brahman doctrine.

When, for example, we consider the full implications of the way in which we see the rainbow, and realize that this is also the way in which we perceive the clouds, the sun, the earth and the stars, we find ourselves strangely close to the “idealism” of Mahayana Buddhism, Berkeley, and Bradley – but with the great advantage of being able to describe the situation in physical and neurological terms, and no gobbledy-gook about “minds” and “souls” to offend the prejudices of the tough-minded or (should I say?) hard-headed. And to such as these the subjective experiences of the mystics are always suspect, for might they not be distortions of consciousness brought about by stress, self-hypnosis, fasting, hyperoxygenation or drugs? There is, then, a more structural and objective foundation for that leap of faith in which a man may dare to think that he is not a stranger in the universe, nor a solitary and tragic flash of awareness in endless and overwhelming darkness. For in the light of what we now know in physical terms, it is not unreasonable to wager that deep down at the center “I myself” is “It” – as in “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.”

If this is a hope, or a fervent belief, Krishnamurti is right in saying that it should be challenged and tested with the question, “Why do you want to believe that? Is it because you are afraid of dying, of coming to an end? Is this identification with the cosmic Self the last desperate resort of your ego to continue its game?” Indeed, if this Supreme Identity is, for me, a belief to which I am clinging, I am in total self-contradiction. Not only is there no sense in clinging to what I am; the very act of clinging also implies that I do not really know that I am it! Such belief is merely doubt dressed up. The final meaning of negative theology, of knowing God by unknowing, of the abandonment of idols both sensible and conceptual, is that ultimate faith is not in or upon anything at all. It is complete letting go. Not only is it beyond theology; it is also beyond atheism and nihilism. Such letting go cannot be attained. It cannot be acquired or developed through perseverance and exercises, except insofar as such efforts prove the impossibility of acquiring it. Letting go comes only through desperation. When you know that it is beyond you – beyond your powers of action as beyond your powers of relaxation. When you give up every last trick and device for getting it, including this “giving up” as something that one might do, say, at ten o’clock tonight. That you cannot by any means do it – that IS it! That is the mighty self-abandonment which gives birth to the stars.

Alan Watts
Beyond Theology (1964)

Painting by Frederic Edwin Church: Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866)

1 “A proletarian and a poor man,” writes Josef Pieper, “are not the same. A man may be poor without being a proletarian: a beggar in mediaeval society was certainly not a proletarian. Equally, a proletarian is not necessarily poor: a mechanic, a ‘specialist’ or a ‘technician’ in a ‘totalitarian work state’ is certainly a proletarian…The proletarian is the man who is fettered to the process of work.” Josef Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture (1952)

On Death

Dying is no big thing!

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of death as far back as I can remember, from earliest childhood. You may think that’s kind of morbid, but when a child at night says the phrase If I should die before I wake, there’s something about it that’s absolutely weird. What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? Most reasonable people just dismiss the thought. They say, “You can’t imagine that”; they shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that will be that.”

But I’m one of those ornery people who aren’t content with an answer like that. Not that I’m trying to find something else beyond that, but I am absolutely fascinated with what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Many people think it would be like going into the dark forever or being buried alive. Obviously it wouldn’t be like that at all! Because we know darkness by contrast, and only by contrast, with light.

I have a friend, a girl, who is very intelligent and articulate, who was born blind and hasn’t the faintest idea what darkness is. The word means as little to her as the word light. So it is the same for you: you are not aware of darkness when you are asleep.

If you went to sleep, into unconsciousness for always and always, it wouldn’t be at all like going into the dark; it wouldn’t be at all like being buried alive. As a matter of fact, it would be as if you had never existed at all! Not only you, but everything else as well. You would be in that state, as if you had never been. And, of course, there would be no problems, there would be no one to regret the loss of anything. You couldn’t even call it a tragedy because there would be no one to experience it as a tragedy. It would be a simple – nothing at all. Forever and for never. Because, not only would you have no future, you would also have no past and no present.

At this point you are probably thinking, “Let’s talk about something else.” But I’m not content with that, because this makes me think of two other things. First of all, the state of nothingness makes me think that the only thing in my experience close to nothingness is the way my head looks to my eye, and then behind my eye there isn’t a black spot, there isn’t even a hazy spot. There’s nothing at all! I’m not aware of my head, as it were, as a black hole in the middle of all this luminous experience. It doesn’t even have very clear edges. The field of vision is an oval, and because this oval of vision there is nothing at all. Of course, if I use my fingers and touch I can feel something behind my eyes; if I use the sense of sight alone there is just nothing there at all. Nevertheless, out of that blankness, I see.

The second thing it makes me think of is when I’m dead I am as if I never had been born, and that’s the way I was before I was born. Just as I try to go back behind my eyes and find what is there I come to a blank, if I try to remember back and back and back to my earliest memories and behind that – nothing, total blank. But just as I know there’s something behind my eyes by using my fingers on my head, so I know through other sources of information that before I was born there was something going on. There were my father and my mother, and their fathers and mothers, and the whole material environment of the Earth and its life out of which they came, and behind that the solar system, and behind that the galaxy, and behind that all the galaxies, and behind that another blank – space. I reason that if I go back when I’m dead to the state where I was before I was born, couldn’t I happen again?

What has happened once can very well happen again. If it happened once it’s extraordinary, and it’s not really very much more extraordinary if it happened all over again. I do know I’ve seen people die and I’ve seen people born after them. So after I die not only somebody but myriads of other beings will be born. We all know that; there’s no doubt about it. What worries us is that when we’re dead there could be nothing at all forever, as if that were something to worry about. Before you were born there was this same nothing at all forever, and yet you happened. If you happened once you can happen again.

Now what does that mean? To look at it in its very simplest way and to properly explain myself, I must invent a new verb. This is the verb to I. We’ll spell it with the letter I but instead of having it as a pronoun we will call it a verb. The universe I’s. It has I’d in me it I’s in you. Now let’s respell the word eye. When I talk about to eye, it means to look at something, to be aware of something. So we will change the spelling, and will say the universe I’s. It becomes aware of itself in each one of us, and it keeps the I’ing, and every time it I’s every one of us in whom it I’s feels that he is the center of the whole thing. I know that you feel that you are I in just the same way that I feel that I am I. We all have the same background of nothing, we don’t remember having done it before, and yet it has been done before again and again and again, not only before in time but all around us everywhere else in space is everybody, is the universe I’ing.

Let me try to make this clearer by saying it is the universe I’ing. Who is I’ing? What do you mean by I? There are two things. First, you can mean your ego, your personality. But that’s not your real I’ing, because your personality is your idea of your self, your image of yourself, and that’s made up of how you feel yourself, how you think about yourself thrown in with what all your friends and relations have told you about yourself. So your image of yourself obviously isn’t you any more than your photograph is you or any more than the image of anything is it. All our images of ourselves are nothing more than caricatures. They contain no information for most of us on how we grow our brains, how we work our nerves, how we circulate our blood, how we secrete with our glands, and how we shape our bones. That isn’t contained in the sensation of the image we call the ego, so obviously, then the ego image is not my self.

My self contains all these things that the body is doing, the circulation of the blood, the breathing, the electrical activity of the nerves, all this is me but I don’t know how it’s constructed. And yet, I do all that. It is true to say I breathe, I walk, I think, I am conscious – I don’t know how I manage to be, but I do it in the same way as I grow my hair. I must therefore locate the center of me, my I’ing, at a deeper level than my ego which is my image or idea of myself. But how deep do we go?

We can say the body is the I, but the body comes out of the rest of the universe, comes out of all this energy – so it’s the universe that’s I’ing. The universe I’s in the same way that a tree apples or that a star shines, and the center of the appling is the tree and the center of the shining is the star, and so the basic center of self of the I’ing is the eternal universe or eternal thing that has existed for ten thousand million years and will probably go on for at least that much more. We are not concerned about how long it goes on, but repeatedly it I’s, so that it seems absolutely reasonable to assume that when I die and this physical body evaporates and the whole memory system with it, then the awareness that I had before will begin all over once again, not in exactly the same way, but that of a baby being born.

Of course, there will be myriads of babies born, not only baby human beings but baby frogs, baby rabbits, baby fruit flies, baby viruses, baby bacteria –and which one of them am I going to be? Only one of them and yet every one of them, this experience comes always in the singular one at a time, but certainly one of them. Actually it doesn’t make much difference, because if I were born again as a fruit fly I would think that being a fruit fly was the normal ordinary course of events, and naturally I would think that I was an important person, a highly cultured being, because fruit flies obviously have a high culture. We don’t even know how to look at it. But probably they have all sorts of symphonies and music, and artistic performances in the way light is reflected on their wings in different ways, the way they dance in the air, and they say, “Oh, look at her, she has real style, look how the sunlight comes off her wings.” They in their world think they are as important and civilized as we do in our world. So, if I were to wake up as a fruit fly I wouldn’t feel any different than I do when I wake up as a human being. I would be used to it.

Well, you say, “It wouldn’t be me! Because if it were me again I would have to remember how I was before!” Right, but you don’t know, remember, how you were before and yet you are content enough to be the me that you are. In fact, it’s a thoroughly good arrangement in this world that we don’t remember what it was like before. Why? Because variety is the spice of life, and if we remembered, remembered, remembered having done this again and again and again we should get bored. In order to see a figure you have to have a background, in order that a memory be valuable you also have to have a forgettory. That’s why we sleep every night to refresh ourselves; we go into the unconscious so that coming back to the conscious is again a great experience.

Day after day we remember the days that have gone on before, even though there is the interval of sleep. Finally there comes a time when, if we consider what is to our true liking, we will want to forget everything that went before. Then we can have the extraordinary experience of seeing the world once again through the eyes of a baby – whatever kind of baby. Then it will be completely new and we will have all the startling wonder that a child has, all the vividness of perception which we wouldn’t have if we remembered everything forever.

The universe is a system which forgets itself and then again remembers anew so there’s always constant change and constant variety in the span of time. It also does it in the span of space by looking at itself through every different living organism, giving an all-around view.

That is a way of getting rid of prejudice, getting rid of a one-sided view. Death in that sense is a tremendous release from monotony. It puts an end to all of total forgetting in a rhythmic process of on/off, on/off so you can begin all over again and never be bored. But the point is that if you can fantasize the idea of being nothing for always and always, what you are really saying is after I’m dead the universe stops, and what I’m saying is it goes on just as it did when you were born. You may think it incredible that you have more than one life, but isn’t it incredible that you have this one? That’s astonishing! And it can always happen again and again and again!

What I am saying then is just because you don’t know how you manage to be conscious, how you manage to grow and shape your body, doesn’t mean that you’re not doing it. Equally, if you don’t know how the universe shines the stars, constellates the constellations, or galactifies the galaxies – you don’t know but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it just the same way as you are breathing without knowing how you breathe.

If I say really and truly I am this whole universe, or this particular organism is an I’ing being done by the whole universe, then somebody could say to me, “Who the hell do you think you are? Are you God? Do you warm up the galaxies? Canst’ thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades or loosen the bonds of Orion?” And I reply, “Who the hell do you think you are! Can you tell me how you grow your brain, how you shape your eyeballs, and how you manage to see? Well, if you can’t tell me that, I can’t tell you how I warm up the galaxy. Only I’ve located the center of myself at a deeper and more universal level than we are, in our culture, accustomed to do.”

So then, if that universal energy is the real me, the real self which I’s as different organisms in different spaces or places, and happening again and again at different times, we’ve got a marvelous system going in which you can be eternally surprised. The universe is really a system which keeps on surprising itself.

Many of us have an ambition, especially in an age of technological competence, to have everything under our control. This is a false ambition because you’ve only got to think for one moment what it would be like to really know and control everything. Supposing we had a supercolossal technology which could go to our wildest dreams of technological competence so that everything that is going to happen would be foreknown, predicted, and everything would be under our control. Why, it would be like making love to a plastic woman! There would be no surprise in it, no sudden answering touch as when we touch another human being. There comes out a response, something unexpected, and that’s what we really want.

You can’t experience the feeling you call self unless it’s in contrast with the feeling of other. It’s like known and unknown, light and dark, positive and negative. Other is necessary in order for you to feel self. Isn’t that the arrangement you want? And, in the same way, couldn’t you say the arrangement you want is not to remember? Memory is always, remember, a form of control: I’ve got it in mind. I know your number, you’re under control. Eventually you want to release that control.

Now if you go on remembering and remembering and remembering, it’s like writing on a piece of paper and going on writing and writing until there is no space left on the paper. Your memory is filled up and you need to wipe it clean so you can begin to write on it once more.

That’s what death does for us: It wipes the slate clean and also, for looking at it from the point of view of population and the human organism on the planet, it keeps cleaning us out! A technology which would enable each one of us to be immortal would progressively crowd the planet with people having hopelessly crowded memories. They would be like people living in a house where they had accumulated so much property, so many books, so many vases, so many sets of knives and forks, so many tables and chairs, so many newspapers that there wouldn’t be any room to move around.

To live we need space, and space is a kind of nothingness, and death is a kind of nothingness – it’s all the same principle. And by putting blocks or spaces of nothingness, spaces of space in between spaces of something, we get life properly spaced out. The German word lebensraum means room for living, and that’s what space gives us, and that’s what death gives us.

Notice that in everything I’ve said about death I haven’t brought in anything that I could call spookery. I haven’t brought in any information about anything that you don’t already know. I haven’t invoked any mysterious knowledge about souls, memory of former lives, anything like that; I’ve just talked about it in terms that we already know. If you believe the idea that life beyond the grave is just wishful thinking, I’ll grant that.

Let’s assume that it is wishful thinking and when we are dead there just won’t be anything. That’ll be the end. Notice, first of all, that’s the worst thing you’ve got to fear. Does it frighten you? Who’s going to be afraid? Supposing it ends – no more problems.

But then you will see that this nothingness, if you’ve followed my argument, is something you’d bounce off from again just as you bounced in in the first place when you were born. You bounced out of nothingness. Nothingness is a kind of bounce because it implies that nothing implies something. You bounce back all new, all different, nothing to compare it with before, a refreshing experience.

You get this sense of nothingness, just like you’ve got the sense of nothing behind your eyes, very powerful frisky nothingness underlying your whole being. There’s nothing in that nothing to be afraid of. With that sense you can come on like the rest of your life is gravy because you’re already dead: You know you’re going to die.

We say the only things certain are death and taxes. And the death of each one of us now is as certain as it would be if we were going to die five minutes from now. So where’s your anxiety? Where’s your hangup? Regard yourself as dead already so that you have nothing to lose. A Turkish proverb says, “He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.” So in the same way is the person who regards himself as already dead.

Therefore, you are virtually nothing. A hundred years from now you will be a handful of dust, and that will be for real. All right now, act on that reality. And out of that…nothing. You will suddenly surprise yourself: The more you know you are nothing the more you will amount to something.

Alan Watts
The Essence of Alan Watts Vol. 4: Death (1975)

Illustration by R. Crumb: From Mr. Natural No. 2 (1971)